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The Amateur Gentleman (Chapter18)

2006-08-28 16:07

  Chapter XVIII. How Barnabas Came to Oakshott's Barn

  The sun was getting low, as Barnabas parted the brambles, and looking about him, frowned. He stood in a grassy glade or clearing, a green oasis hemmed in on every side with bushes. Before him was Oakshott's Barn, an ancient structure, its rotting thatch dishevelled, its doors gone long since, its aged walls cracked and scarred by years, a very monument of desolation; upon its threshold weeds had sprung up, and within its hoary shadow breathed an air damp, heavy, and acrid with decay.

  It was indeed a place of solitude full of the "hush" of leaves, shut out from the world, close hidden from observation, a place apt for the meetings of lovers. And, therefore, leaning in the shadow of the yawning doorway, Barnabas frowned.

  Evening was falling, and from shadowy wood, from dewy grass and flower, stole wafts of perfume, while from some thicket near by a blackbird filled the air with the rich note of his languorous song; but Barnabas frowned only the blacker, and his hand clenched itself on the stick he carried, a heavy stick, that he had cut from the hedge as he came.

  All at once the blackbird's song was hushed, and gave place to a rustle of leaves that drew nearer and nearer; yet Barnabas never moved, not even when the bushes were pushed aside and a man stepped into the clearing——a tall, elegant figure, who having paused to glance sharply about him, strolled on again towards the barn, swinging his tasselled walking-cane, and humming softly to himself as he came. He was within a yard of Barnabas when he saw him, and stopped dead.

  "Ah!" he exclaimed, softly; and thereafter the two eyed each other in an ominous silence.

  "And who the devil are you?" he inquired at length, his eyes still intent.

  "Sir," said Barnabas, yet leaning in the doorway——"your name I think, is Chichester?"

  "Well?"

  "Permit me to return your coat button!" and Barnabas held out the article in question, but Mr. Chichester never so much as glanced at it.

  "What do you want here?" he demanded, soft of voice.

  "To tell you that this dismal place is called Oakshott's Barn, sir."

  "Well?"

  "To warn you that Oakshott's Barn is an unhealthy place——for your sort, sir."

  "Ha!" said Mr. Chichester, his heavy-lidded eyes unwinking, "do you threaten?"

  "Let us rather say——I warn!"

  "So you do threaten!"

  "I warn!" repeated Barnabas.

  "To the devil with you and your warning!" All this time neither of them had moved or raised his voice, only Mr. Chichcster's thin, curving nostrils began to twitch all at once, while his eyes gleamed beneath their narrowed lids. But now Barnabas stepped clear of the doorway, the heavy stick swinging in his hand.

  "Then, sir," said he, "let me advise. Let me advise you to hurry from this solitude."

  Mr. Chichester laughed——a low, rippling laugh.

  "Ah!" said he, "ah, so that's it!"

  "Yes," nodded Barnabas, shifting his gaze to Mr. Chichester's right hand, a white beringed hand, whose long, slender fingers toyed with the seals that dangled at his fob, "so pray take up your button and go!"

  Mr. Chichester glanced at the heavy stick; at the powerful hand, the broad shoulders and resolute face of him who held it, and laughed again, and, laughing, bowed.

  "Your solicitude for my health——touches me, sir,——touches me, my thanks are due to you, for my health is paramount. I owe you a debt which I shall hope to repay. This place, as you say, is dismal. I wish you good evening!" saying which, Mr. Chichester turned away. But in that same instant, swift and lithe as a panther, Barnabas leapt, and dropping his stick, caught that slender, jewelled hand, bent it, twisted it, and wrenched the weapon from its grasp. Mr. Chichester stood motionless, white-lipped and silent, but a devil looked out of his eyes.

  "Ah!" said Barnabas, glancing down at the pistol he held, "I judged you would not venture into these wilds without something of the sort. The path, you will notice, lies to your left; it is a winding path, I will go with you therefore, to see that you do not lose your way, and wander——back here again."

  Without a word Mr. Chichester turned, and coming to the path followed it, walking neither fast nor slow, never once looking to where Barnabas strode behind, and heedless of briar or bramble that dragged at him as he passed. On they went, until the path lost itself in a grassy lane, until the lane ended in a five-barred gate. Now, having opened the gate, Mr. Chichester passed through into the high road, and then, for one moment he looked at Barnabas, a long, burning look that took in face, form and feature, and so, still without uttering a word, he went upon his way, walking neither fast nor slow, and swinging his tasselled cane as he went, while Barnabas, leaning upon the gate, watched him until his tall, slender figure had merged into the dusk, and was gone.

  Then Barnabas sighed, and becoming aware of the pistol in his hand, smiled contemptuously, and was greatly minded to throw it away, but slipped it into his pocket instead, for he remembered the devil in the eyes of Mr. Chichester.

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